March 20, 2017
The oldest extant public toilets in London can be found Wesley’s Chapel in City Road.
The gentlemen’s facilities, located off to the side of the chapel, were designed by the famous Thomas Crapper & Co and consist of enclosed wooden-walled cubicles, a series of urinals and wash basins.
The well-appointed toilets were installed in 1899 – more than 100 years after John Wesley’s death and long after many other parts of the Georgian and Victorian complex of buildings (including Wesley’s house) were built – but remain in working order even today.
Crapper, who had founded his company in the 1860s, championed the concept of the flushing toilet (although the idea had already been invented) and was responsible for the invention of the ballcock system. And contrary to common belief, Crapper – who received several royal warrants for his work – did not lend his name to a slang word for excrement – its origins go back much further.
WHERE: Wesley’s Chapel (with The Museum of Methodism and John Wesley’s House), 49 City Road (nearest Tube stations are Old Street and Moorgate; WHEN: 10am to 4pm Monday to Saturday/ 12:30pm to 1:45pm Sunday; COST: free (donations appreciated); WEBSITE: www.wesleyschapel.org.uk
January 13, 2017
The first coffee house to be located in London, this premises was opened by a Greek, Pasqua Rosée, in 1652 and is believed to have been located in St Michael’s Alley off Cornhill.
Rosée had come to England as the manservant of Daniel Edwards, a member of the Levant Company who had first encountered him in Smyrna (in modern Turkey) and returned with him. One story says that Rosée decided to start the business after a falling out with Edwards on their return to England; another that Edwards helped Rosée start the business when they realised the interest people had in trying the new drink.
The establishment, which was originally located in a shed in the churchyard of St Michael’s Cornhill, was advertised by a sign which was apparently a portrait of Rosée – hence the name ‘The Sign of Pasqua Rosee’s Head’ – but it was also referred to as ‘The Turk’s Head’. Such was its success that Rosée was apparently selling up to 600 dishes of coffee a day.
Not everyone, however, was a fan of Rosée’s business – in particular tavern owners who saw it as a threat to their own – and aware of his status as an outsider, he is said to have decided to forge a partnership with a freeman of the City of London so there could be no dispute over his right to trade. He found just such a partner in a grocer, Christopher Bowman, in 1654.
The business was relocated following the creation of their partnership across the alley out of the shed and into a rather ruinous house but the new lease was signed only by Bowman. There is a suggestion that Rosée had to flee for some misdemeanour but for whatever reason, his name is no longer mentioned and Bowman was now apparently the sole owner of the business.
Despite the change of ownership, the business continued to trade under Rosée’s sign and it is said to have been Bowman who authored the handbill The Vertue of the Coffee Drink (sic) – an advertising document which credits its creation to Rosée and is filled with some rather dubious claims about the miraculous powers of the drink.
Notable visitors included Samuel Pepys who visited the famous coffee house in 1660, mentioning it in his famous diary.
Bowman apparently died in 1662 and the business went into decline before any trace of it was wiped away in the conflagration of the Great Fire of 1666. The Jamaica Wine House, which features a blue plaque to Rosée’s coffee house apparently erected by the Corporation of London in 1952, now stands near the site Rosée’s original shed.
This Week in London – Skating on Ice; Christmas trees worth seeing; and, Westminster Abbey’s new galleries…
December 22, 2016
• London’s obsession with ice-skating is the subject of an exhibition which opened at the Museum of London earlier this month. Skating on Ice looks at the history of the popular pastime, from the 12th century – when locals are described strapping animals bones to their feet to skate on ice at Moorfields – across the centuries (and the developments that went with them) to today. Among the artefacts on show is an 1839 oil painting by J Baber depicting skaters on the Serpentine in Hyde Park, sketches from the London Illustrated News showing a rescue operation to recover the 40 of some 40 skaters who plunged beneath the ice in Regent’s Park on 15th January, 1867, a navy blue gabardine skirt suit from Fortnum & Mason dating from the 1930s and a series of skates, ranging from some made of animal bones through to a pair of Victorian racing skates known as Fen Runners and a pair of ice skates used from the late 1930s by Londoner Christina Greenberry at Streatham Ice Arena. Runs until 8th February. Entry is free. See www.museumoflondon.org.uk for more. (Pictured – ice-skating in the Tower of London moat).
• Christmas is looming and so, if you haven’t been out and about already, here’s five Christmas trees worth seeing over the coming few days (excluding the obvious one in Trafalgar Square):
- Covent Garden. Always a glittering treat (this year complete with virtual prizes!).
- St Pancras International. A rather odd design this year, this 100 foot tall tree is inspired by the Cirque du Soleil show Amaluna and lights up every time a donation is made to Oxfam.
- Granary Square, Kings Cross. Looking like a Christmas tree frozen inside an ice-cube, this seven metre high installation – Fighting fire with ice cream – by British artist Alex Chinneck features some 1,200 lights.
- Tate Britain, Millbank. An upside down tree, designed by Iranian artist Shirazeh Houshiary.
- Connaught Hotel, Mount Street, Mayfair. Designed by British sculptor Antony Gormley, this 57 foot tall tree features a trunk transformed into a pillar of light.
• Prince Charles last week unveiled the foundation stone for a tower that will take visitors to Westminster Abbey into the institution’s new museum and galleries. The tower is being built outside Poet’s Corner – between the 13th century Chapter House and 16th-century Henry VII’s Lady Chapel – and will be the principal entrance to the medieval triforium, which has never before been opened to the public and which house the proposed The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries. The tower and galleries, costing almost £23 million, will be the most significant addition to the abbey since Nicholas Hawksmoor’s west towers were completed in 1745. The galleries, which will be located 70 feet above the abbey’s floor, are due to open in summer 2018, and will display treasures from the abbey’s history as well as offering magnificent views of Parliament Square and the Palace of Westminster. To help meet the cost of the new galleries, the abbey has launched a #makehistory campaign asking for public donations to the project. For more, see www.westminster-abbey-galleries.org/Content/Filler.
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November 28, 2016
We reintroduce an old favourite this month with our first ‘Where’s London’s oldest’ in a few years. And to kick it off, we’re looking at one of London’s oldest public clocks.
Hanging off the facade of the church of St Dunstan-in-the-West in Fleet Street is a clock which is believed to have been the first public clock to be erected in London which bears a minute hand.
The work of clockmaker Thomas Harris, the clock was first installed on the medieval church in 1671 – it has been suggested it was commissioned to celebrate the church’s survival during the Great Fire of London and was installed to replace an earlier clock which had been scorched in the fire. Its design was apparently inspired by a clock which had once been on Old St Paul’s Cathedral and was destroyed in the fire.
Like the clock it replaced, this clock sat in brackets and projected out into Fleet Street which meant it was able to be seen from a fair distance away (and being double-sided meant the black dials could be seen from both the east and the west). Like the Roman numerals that decorate it, the two hands, including the famous minute hand, are gold.
To the rear and above the clock dials are located the bells and striking mechanism. The bells are struck on the hours and the quarters by ‘automata’ – Herculean figures, perhaps representing Gog and Magog (although to most they were traditionally simply known as the ‘Giants of St Dunstan’s’), who do so using clubs and turn their heads.
Such was the attention these figures attracted that when the clock was first installed the area became notorious for pick-pockets who apparently went to work on unsuspecting passersby who had stopped to watch the giants at work.
This church was demolished in the early 1800s to allow the widening of Fleet Street and when it was rebuilt in 1830, the clock was absent. Having decided it couldn’t be accommodated in the new design, it had been auctioned off with the art collector, Francis Seymour-Conway, the 3rd Marquess of Hertford, the successful bidder.
He had it installed on his Decimus Burton-designed villa in Regent’s Park and there it remained until 1935 when Lord Rothermere, who had bought the villa in 1930, returned it to the church to mark the Silver Jubilee of King George V.
There are numerous literary references to the clock including in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Oliver Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield and a William Cowper poem.
September 6, 2016
London blazed again on Sunday night when a 120 metre long wooden replica of the city as it was in Restoration times was set alight to mark 350th years since the Great Fire of London. London 1666 was designed by US “burn artist” David Best for London’s Burning – a festival of events in the City of London produced by Artichoke to mark the anniversary. It had been placed on a barge moored in the River Thames before it was lit up to ensure that the fire didn’t spread anywhere it wasn’t wanted. The actual Great Fire of London broke out in a bakery on Pudding Lane shortly after midnight on 2nd September, 1666, and blazed across the city for four days, destroying more than three quarters of the old City of London as it render tens of thousands of Londoners homeless and devastated iconic structures like Old St Paul’s Cathedral. You can see a video of the burn here. PICTURES: © Matthew Andrews.
This Week in London – The Notting Hill Carnival turns 50; St Paul’s marks the Great Fire’s 350th; and, London’s subcultures captured on film…
August 25, 2016
• The Notting Hill Carnival, the largest street festival in Europe, is celebrating its 50th birthday this Bank Holiday weekend. Events at the west London-based celebration of Caribbean culture, music, food and drink include a Children’s Day on Sunday with a parade for children, performances on the World Music Stage at Powis Square as well as food and drink (runs from 10am to 8.30pm); and, the main event, the 3.5 mile long Monday Parade and Grand Finale featuring 60 bands, performances at the World Music Stage as well as food and other activities (runs from 10am to 8.30pm). For more, see www.thenottinghillcarnival.com.
• St Paul’s Cathedral, created after Old St Paul’s was destroyed in the Great Fire of London, has been marking the 350th anniversary of that event with a special programme of walks, talks, tours, special sermons and debates. Running until next April, they include special ‘fire tours’ of the cathedral, a special ‘family trail’ through the cathedral (which you can download for free), and Triforium tours in which you can see carved stones from Old St Paul’s and Sir Christopher Wren’s ‘great model’ of the new cathedral. In addition, an exhibition featuring a collection of pre-Great Fire artefacts, Out of the Fire, opens on 1st September (admission included in cathedral admission charge) and the cathedral will be kept open for two nights next week until 9pm, on 2nd and 3rd September. For the full programme of events, bookings and more information, head to www.stpauls.co.uk/fire.
• On Now – Stomping Grounds: Photographs by Dick Scott-Stewart. This free exhibition at the Museum of London features images taken by the relatively unknown London-based photographer in the late 1970s and early 1980s, depicting everyone from the New Romantics of Covent Garden and Rockabillies of Elephant and Castle to wrestling matches at the Battersea Arts Centre and punks congregating on the Kings Road. The exhibition features 38 photographs and other “ephemera”. Entry is free. Closes on 18th September. For more, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk.
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July 25, 2016
Recorded in the Domesday Book as Putelei and known in the Middle Ages as Puttenhuthe, it apparently goes back to a Saxon named Puttan who lived in the area and the Old English word ‘hyp’, which means ‘landing place’. Hence, “Puttan’s landing place” (or Puttan’s wharf).
Putney has something of a storied history – it was the birthplace of Tudor heavyweight Thomas Cromwell, Georgian-era author Edward Gibbon and it was here, in the still-standing parish church of St Mary the Virgin (pictured), that the Putney Debates were held in 1647 among members of the New Model Army.
The first bridge was apparently built here in the first half of the 18th century and the present stone bridge in the 1880s.
Today a sought-after riverside residential district, Putney boasts a sizeable high street, great riverside pubs and eateries and is particularly popular every April when The Boat Race is held between Oxford and Cambridge universities thanks to the starting point being just upstream of Putney Bridge.
The area also is home to the 400 acre Putney Heath (which adjoins Wimbledon Common), a popular site for duels in the 18th century, and also home to a stone and brick obelisk, erected in 1770 to mark the 110th anniversary of the Great Fire of London (more on that in an upcoming post).
This Week in London – Westminster Abbey open overnight for Somme vigil; ‘Painters’ Paintings’; and, the East End Canal Festival…
June 23, 2016
• Westminster Abbey is to remain open all night next Thursday (30th June) for a vigil in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. It’s the first time the abbey has been open for an all-night vigil since the Cuban missile crisis more than 50 years ago. The vigil around the Grave of the Unknown Warrior will be mounted from 8.45pm next Thursday, 30th June, through to 7.30am on Friday, 1st July (last entry to the abbey is at 7.15am). The public are invited to attend the vigil following an evening service at 8pm on Thursday which will be attended by Queen Elizabeth II and broadcast live on BBC Two. The vigil, which will end with the firing of World War I guns in Parliament Square by The King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery, will see a series of 15 minute watches kept by service personnel and community groups representing those involved in the battle and there will also be readings from contemporary accounts. No tickets are required and entry, which is free, is via the abbey’s visitor entrance at the North Door. For more, see www.westminster-abbey.org.
• Ever wondered what attracts artists to collect particular paintings? Answers abound at a new summer exhibition opening at The National Gallery today. Painters’ Paintings’: From Freud to Van Dyck features a series of ‘case studies’, each of which is devoted to works gathered by a particular ‘painter-collector’ including Lucien Freud, Henri Matisse, Hillaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Frederic, Lord Leighton, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Anthony van Dyck. The display was inspired by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s work Italian Woman which was left to the nation by Lucien Freud following his death in 2011. “It made us start considering questions such as which paintings do artists choose to hang on their own walls,” explains Anne Robbins, curator of the exhibition. “How do the works of art they have in their homes and studios influence their personal creative journeys? What can we learn about painters from their collection of paintings? Painters’ Paintings’: From Freud to Van Dyck is the result.” The exhibition features works from the gallery’s own collection as well as loans from public and private collections. Admission charges apply. Runs until 4th September. For more, see www.nationalgallery.org.uk. PICTURE: Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s Italian Woman, or Woman with Yellow Sleeve (L’Italienne) about 1870/© The National Gallery, London.
• The East End Canal Festival takes place at the Art Pavilion, Mile End Park this Sunday. The programme, being run by the Friends of Regent’s Canal, includes boat trips as well as guided canal history walks and a range of performances, films, stalls, exhibitions featuring historic photos and locally made artworks, children’s activities and food. The festivities at the Clinton Road site are free. For more, see http://friendsofregentscanal.org/events/eecf.html.
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The concept of a scheme involving placing commemorative plaques on what was once the homes of notable people was first raised by MP William Ewart in 1863 in Parliament.
Three years later, in 1866, the idea was adopted by the then Society of Arts (later the Royal Society of Arts) and in 1867 it erected two blue plaques, the first being one commemorating the birthplace of Lord Byron at 24 Holles Street just south of Cavendish Square in Marylebone and the second being that erected to Emperor Napoleon III in King Street (see last week’s post).
But the Byron plaque had the honour of being the first and it remained on the property until it was demolished in 1889 and the plaque, presumably, lost.
It has, however, been replaced several times on subsequent buildings on the site – the latest incarnation, is a “green plaque” erected by Westminster City Council on what is now a John Lewis store and was unveiled on National Poetry Day in 2012 (it replaced a non-standard, rectangular-shaped plaque – pictured above – which was installed after the building was bombed during World War II).
The current plaque describes Lord Byron as “one of the greatest British poets” and quotes him: “Always laugh when you can. It is a cheap medicine.”
Byron is said to have been born at the property on 22nd January, 1788 and was baptised George Gordon Byron at the nearby St Marylebone Parish Church. Interestingly, English Heritage says that recent research has shown there is no clear evidence for which house in Holles Street Lord Byron actually lived in meaning none of the plaques may have actually marked the correct site.
During the first 35 years of the scheme’s existence it erected on some 35 plaques (there are now some 900 in existence, so the pace has quickened since).
Less than half of them now survive but among those that do are plaques to poet John Keats (erected in 1896 on Keats’ House in Hampstead), novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (erected in 1887 on 2 Palace Green in Kensington) and politician and author Edmund Burke (erected in 1876 on 37 Gerrard Street in Soho.
May 20, 2016
The Augustinian Nunnery of St Mary was founded in about 114o by Jorden de Briset, the lord of Clerkenwell Manor (he also founded the Hospitaller Priory of St John of Jerusalem which lay to the south – more on this here) on 14 acres of land to the east of the famous “Clerk’s Well” (more on the well, which was located close to, but within, the western border of the nunnery, in our earlier post here).
By 1160 a wall had been built around the precinct said to have been roughly bounded by Farringdon Lane, Clerkenwell Green (an open space between the two religious houses), St James’s Walk and a boundary to the south of, and parallel with, Bowling Green Lane to the north.
The church – where Briset and his wife were later buried and which doubled as a parish church – was built about the same time, along with an adjoining chapter-house – both of which were made of stone in contrast to the timber buildings which initially made up the rest of the complex.
A cloister and other stone buildings were erected to the north of the church later in the 12th and 13th centuries including a lodging for the prioress, a dormitory, refectory and kitchen for the nuns. Other buildings on the site included a gatehouse, what was known as the “Nun’s Hall” – possibly a hall for guests – and an infirmary with its own chapel, the location of which is apparently something of a mystery.
Substantial renovation works were carried out in the late 15th and early 16th centuries and by the time of King Henry VIII’s dissolution, it had become one of the wealthiest monasteries in England (although it only ever housed about 20 canonesses).
One of the last nunneries to be suppressed, it was dissolved in 1539 with the nuns being pensioned off.
The site was initially granted to Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, who held it only briefly being returning it to the king in a deal for another property and subsequently purchased by a succession of different owners.
Many of the buildings were converted for use as private mansions and outbuildings, among them Newcastle House and Challoner (later Cromwell due to the legend that Oliver Cromwell resided there) House which faced them across what had been the cloister courtyard.
The mansions were gradually redeveloped into smaller properties – it remained a popular residential area despite the building of a House of Detention to the immediate north – and in 1788-92, the parish church of St James was rebuilt to the designs of local architect James Carr, with the spire apparently modelled on St Martin-in-the-Fields (Carr also bought Newcastle House and pulled most of it down before redeveloping the area).
Church gardens, which are open to the public, now occupy some of the site of the former nunnery – in 1987, part of the medieval cloisters were excavated here.
For some insightful walks delving into the history of London, see Stephen Millar’s three books, London’s Hidden Walks: Volumes 1-3.
This Week in London – Photography and art at the Tate; punk’s 40th birthday; and, Sunday dome openings at St Paul’s…
May 12, 2016
• The “dynamic dialogue” between British painters and photographers is the subject of a new exhibition which opened at Tate Britain in Millbank this week. Painting with Light: Art and Photography from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Modern Age features almost 200 works, revealing their common influences and showing how photography adapted many of the “Old Master traditions” to create new works. Among those whose works are featured in the exhibition are everyone from David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson to JMW Turner, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rosetti and photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Highlights include examples of three-dimensional photography which used models and props to recreate popular works of the time, including a previously unseen private album in which the Royal Family re-enact famous paintings. Runs until 25th September in the Linbury Galleries. For more, see www.tate.org.uk. PICTURE: Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Proserpine 1874. Tate.
• The 40th anniversary of punk is being commemorated in a new exhibition which opens at the British Library tomorrow. Punk 1976-78 traces the impact of punk from its roots in the French Situationist movement and New York City art-rock scene through to the rise and fall of the Sex Pistols and looks at the impact punk had on music, fashion and design in the mid-Seventies. Located in the library’s Entrance Hall Gallery, the free display – which includes materials from the UK’s biggest punk-related archive held at Liverpool John Moores University – features a rare copy of the Sex Pistol’s God Save the Queen single, fanzines such as the first punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue, flyers, posters and gig tickets from venues including the Roxy Club, Covent Garden and Eric’s Club, audio recordings, and original record sleeves such as John Peel’s personal copy of the Undertones’ single Teenage Kicks. There’s a full calendar of events to accompany the exhibition including John Lydon’s only live interview of the year. Runs until 2nd October. For more, see www.bl.uk/events/punk-1976-78.
• Climb St Paul Cathedral’s dome on special Sunday openings during May. And in order not to disturb Sunday services, visitors who wish to climb to the dome’s Stone Gallery and Golden Gallery will see parts of the cathedral not normally open to the public as they enter through a not-normally used side door and climb 22 extra steps. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.stpauls.co.uk.
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It was 75 years ago this year – on the night of 10th/11th May, 1941 – that the German Luftwaffe launched an unprecedented attacked on London, an event that has since become known as the ‘Longest Night’ (it’s also been referred to as ‘The Hardest Night’).
Air raid sirens echoed across the city as the first bombs fells at about 11pm and by the following morning, some 1,436 Londoners had been killed and more than that number injured while more than 11,000 houses had been destroyed along and landmark buildings including the Palace of Westminster (the Commons Chamber was entirely destroyed and the roof of Westminster Hall was set alight), Waterloo Station, the British Museum and the Old Bailey were, in some cases substantially, damaged.
The Royal Air Force Museum records that some 571 sorties were flown by German air crews over the course of the night and morning, dropping 711 tons of high explosive bombs and more than 86,000 incendiaries. The planes were helped in their mission – ordered in retaliation for RAF bombings of German cities – by the full moon reflecting off the river below.
The London Fire Brigade recorded more than 2,100 fires in the city and together these caused more than 700 acres of the urban environment, more than double that of the Great Fire of London in 1666 (the costs of the destruction were also estimated at more than double that of the Great Fire – some £20 million).
Fighter Command sent some 326 aircraft into the fight that night, not all of them over London, and, according to the RAF Museum, the Luftwaffe officially lost 12 aircraft (although others put the figure at more than 30).
By the time the all-clear siren sounded just before 6am on 11th May, it was clear the raid – which turned out to be the last major raid of The Blitz – had been the most damaging ever undertaken upon the city.
Along with the landmarks mentioned above, other prominent buildings which suffered in the attack include Westminster Abbey, St Clement Danes (the official chapel of the Royal Air Force, it was rebuilt but still bears the scars of the attack), and the Queen’s Hall.
Pictured above is a statue of firefighters in action in London during the Blitz, taken from the National Firefighters Memorial near St Paul’s Cathedral – for more on that, see our earlier post here.
For more on The Longest Night, see Gavin Mortimer’s The Longest Night: Voices from the London Blitz: The Worst Night of the London Blitz.
January 15, 2016
Holywell Street, which ran parallel to the Strand in the West End, was – as we pointed out in a story earlier this week – named for a ‘holy well’ which is still located in the basement of Australia House.
Once a favoured location for secondhand clothes dealers (it was then known to many as ‘Rag Street’), the street became known as something of a hot-house for those selling books containing radical and dissenting opinions in the late 18th century and early 19th century and it was during this time that it also started to attract a less reputable trade – that of the pornography industry.
So much so that by the 1820s, the narrow street – also then known as Bookseller’s Row – had effectively become the centre of the pornographic industry in London (one estimate puts at 57 the number of purveyors of indecency in the street by 1834). William Dugdale, who died in ignominy in prison, was the most infamous purveyor of such goods to work in the street.
The combination of its proximity to the church of St Clement Danes – which sits at the eastern end of what was the street (St Mary le Strand stands at what was the western end) – and the indecent trade which went on in it led to it being nicknamed the “Backside of St Clements”.
The street and is disreputable trade were removed during the building of what is now Aldwych – a crescent at the southern end of Kingsway – in 1901.
PICTURE: Holywell Street shown in 1888 book, The District Railway Guie to London, with coloured maps, plans etc./via British Library Flickr